This weekend, thousands of spectators will be watching the Belmont Stakes — even as the first horse in 34 years to have a chance at winning the Triple Crown has been scratched from the final event. I'll Have Another was scratched from the race on Friday with an injury that may end the horse's career.
The turn of events is an ironic twist for the horse racing industry as a whole. Throughout the country, attendance at racetracks is down. Revenues and profits have fallen. Trainers, sometimes desperate to win, increasingly drug their animals to make them run faster or run through pain, threatening the safety of horses and riders alike.
"I think racing has done a remarkably good job of shooting itself in the foot for the last 30 years," says H. Robb Levinsky, the owner and racing manager of Kenwood Racing who has been involved in horse racing since 1981. "There is so much industry infighting and lack of coordination that we have damaged ourselves and our reputation and our product. We're our own worst enemy."
Some say the industry is in such bad shape that it may not last much longer. "I personally don't see a reason for the racing industry to exist when I look 10, 20 or 25 years out," says Susan Kayne, the team manager of Unbridled Racing who has spent 25 years owning, raising and breeding horses. "The way it's funded, the disarray, the lack of respect for the horse itself — which is the reason why there is a horse industry. I see it imploding upon itself."
A $100-billion, invisible industry
Horse racing might not receive a great deal of national coverage outside of events like the Kentucky Derby or recent investigations by the New York Times, but it's a bigger industry than most people realize, says Andrew Schrage, who has studied the horse racing market and is co-owner of Money Crashers, a personal finance website.
"Recent statistics show that horse racing has a $39 billion direct economic impact," he tells MNN. Indirect spending accounts for another $102 billion. "Local breeders purchase hay from local farmers, and also patronize local sawmills to get wood for fencing and dust for horses to sleep on. They also buy locally produced feed, and use local veterinarians and blacksmiths." And in a time when jobs are scarce, "the industry accounts for 1.4 million full-time jobs," Schrage says.
And yet, with attendance at racetracks down and no regular television coverage, the sport is effectively invisible to many people. "We do not have the exposure on television and in the media that we should," says Levinsky. "If you're not viewed on the Internet and TV widely, you don't exist." He blames this on the lack of a strong, national coordinating body for the sport, which would not only provide marketing but govern the industry on issues related to medications and national scheduling. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association could have served this role after it was founded in 1998, "but racetracks didn't buy in and it became a powerless figurehead organization," Levinsky says.
State by state, problem by problem
A strong national body should provide common rules and an infrastructure for the sport, Levinsky says. "Imagine the NBA if every state had different rules, different-sized courts, different referees and rules, and no coordinated schedule."
Instead, horse racing exists in a patchwork quilt of rules and regulations that vary from state to state. "There's a lot of disparity across the U.S.," says Kayne. As the New York Times uncovered, this creates environments where horses in some states — such New Mexico — are more routinely exposed to dangerous conditions, resulting in injuries and deaths.
Levinsky, who points out that most states have more stringent regulations, encourages the creation of federal standards to protect horses and the industry. "I think we need federal oversight," he says. You can see what happens without national rules. We really need a national policy so we don't have rogue states like New Mexico."
A national policy would also help improve the image of the industry and provide better marketing support. "One of the reasons there's a lack of media attention is because there isn't a consistent product to follow," Levinsky says.
Too many horses, too many drugs, too much money
Some of the industry's problems began 20 or 30 years ago, when the price tag on buying horses began to climb. "You started to see $1 million and $2 million yearlings," says Kayne. "Commercial breeders started breeding horses more to sell, not for longevity."
She says this resulted in two problems: first, thoroughbreds can cost so much that it's almost impossible for them to win enough races to balance the purchase price; that has contributed to the rising level of drug use to improve racing results and keep horses racing despite possible injuries. "Anyone involved in the industry is now trying to extrapolate as much money as they can from a given horse. Horses are trained day-to-day on painkillers, muscle relaxers, bronchodilators — anything to run through the pain. Most of these substances are prohibited to race upon. You end up with addicted and drug-addled horses." Even if the horses are not given these medications on racing days, the withdrawal can be just as bad. "The horses are faltering left and right," she says.
"The irony of that is, the fastest and most expensive 2-year-olds rarely succeed or earn out their purchase price at the race track," she says. "From looking at sales for the past 30 years, your $20,000 to $40,000 horses are the ones that go out and win the million-dollar purses."
The second problem created by rising prices, says Kayne, is that the population of available horses begun to peak. "We have a glut of thoroughbreds," she says. This overpopulation, in turn, has resulted in one of the industry's other public-perception problems: too many horses end up in slaughterhouses. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, between 90,000 and 140,000 horses are sent to slaughter in Mexico and Canada every year.
Levinsky acknowledges that overuse of drugs is a problem, but thinks the New York Times may have overstated the situation. Of the thousands of medication violations uncovered by the Times, "All but a tiny handful — 99 percent-plus — were legal medication," he says. "The violation was that a horse was allowed to have a few billions of a gram above the allowed amount." He says that treating an animal the size of a horse makes treatment difficult. Meanwhile, today's more sensitive and sophisticated testing protocols mean that even a tiny bit too much medicine is easily detected.
Levinsky also says that the majority of drugs used on thoroughbreds are not stimulants. Instead, he equates them with athletes being given aspirin. "Whether they are appropriate, and in what dose, is a very important question," he says. "Studies have shown that in low doses, the medications are beneficial."
But he's still thinking about the issue. "I'm on the fence about this one," he admits. "I've been trying to look at the scientific studies myself. Do you ban certain drugs or allow them in a very small amount? I'm not sure which one is the right answer."
But he does have an idea: Several days before every race, take all of the competing horses and put them in what he calls a "race barn," where they could be monitored by video cameras, and medications would only be administered by state veterinarians. "This would take away any perception of overmedication," he says. "It would protect the industry, the horse and the public perception."
Several tracks or states already ban race-day medication, but Kayne thinks that's not enough. "When I see a track banning race-day medication, it does not address the real problem of day-to-day training on drugs. You're asking a horse to run through every pain in its system. They're more likely to be dependent on drugs. There's no incentive for a trainer not to train on drugs." Her solution: offer drug-free races with bigger purses as an incentive for healthy horse training.
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board is actually moving in a different direction: forcing tracks to lower purses for races, establishing a cap of two times the assigned value of the horses that are running in any given race. The board says this will help to improve safety of both the horses and their riders.
MNN tease photo of horse race: Shutterstock